The City of Chicago’s approval of expanded tax-increment-financing industrial districts in the Englewood neighborhood last month probably appeared to be just another routine piece of local business. But behind that vote lay plans to expand a rail yard and the surrounding community’s fight to protect itself from increased air pollution and sickness.
Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood is 98 percent African American, and 44 percent of its residents live in poverty. It is also home to a 104-acre rail yard where cargo is loaded and unloaded between diesel trucks and trains. Rail yards are notorious for the amount of diesel air pollution they create and the resulting high rates of asthma, cancer, and bronchitis in the communities nearby.
So Englewood residents were understandably concerned when they learned of the rail yard’s plans for a $285 million, 84-acre expansion. A community organization there, Sustainable Englewood, sought legal help to curb the effects of the rail yard expansion. It was represented by the Environmental Advocacy Center at Northwestern University School of Law’s Bluhm Legal Clinic and teamed with another public interest legal organization, the Environmental Law and Policy Center. Debbie Chizewer, an environmental attorney in Chicago, detailed the Englewood community’s efforts in an article in the 2013 special issue of Clearinghouse Review on racial justice.
To facilitate the rail yard expansion in Englewood, the City of Chicago and the rail company Norfolk Southern had reached a proposed agreement whereby Norfolk Southern would buy 105 vacant city-owned lots and pay an additional $3 million for road and other improvements generally related to the rail yard expansion. But first, the City Council had to pass ordinances for the public land sale to go through. Sustainable Englewood saw an opportunity to apply some pressure to reduce the impacts of the rail yard expansion.
Sustainable Englewood and its partners held a press conference in February 2013 at City Hall. Residents and environmentalists talked about Englewood’s high childhood asthma rate and demanded emission controls on the diesel trucks entering the rail yard. This strategy worked, and the City Council delayed approval of the land sale. Sustainable Englewood applied more pressure in August to delay the City Plan Commission’s approval of a tax-increment-financing district change from residential to industrial. The group presented its procedural and substantive environmental concerns, and its efforts paid off with yet another delay from the City.
These delays were just what the community team needed to negotiate a fair deal with the City of Chicago and Norfolk Southern to secure additional protections for the neighborhood near the expanded rail yard. The deal means:
- Norfolk Southern will install modern pollution control equipment on trucks and clean engines or diesel filters on lift equipment;
- Chicago and Norfolk Southern will work together on truck congestion relief and pollution reduction;
- Norfolk Southern will pay $1 million for sustainability projects in Englewood and another $1 million for job training in Englewood;
- Chicago will convert elevated rail track to green space.
After Chicago and Norfolk Southern agreed to these concessions to the Englewood community, the City of Chicago approved the expanded tax-increment-financing districts on November 13, 2013.
In addition to chronicling these efforts of Englewood residents to curb the harms of a rail yard expansion, Debbie Chizewer’s Clearinghouse Review article, Laying Tracks to Environmental Justice, discusses two communities in southern California and the litigation and administrative strategies they used to curb the harms of rail yard expansion proposals there. Communities around the country can look to these efforts as examples of how to protect a community’s health and environment in the face of a rail yard expansion or other environmental justice concerns.